Gatland defiant as 'wolves' gather in Wales

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The Independent Online

Wales have been put through the pain barrier and will now attempt to restore a little joy to the nation. Warren Gatland has informed his Grand Slam winners turned wooden spoon contenders that defeat is "unacceptable" this afternoon and he expects them to front up in the same manner he has this last week.

The Kiwi usually only appears at one press conference in match-week but after last Saturday's demoralising loss in Ireland he has attended all three, including yesterday's at the Millennium Stadium. "There's no point in throwing my lieutenants to the wolves when I'm prepared to face them myself," he said, neatly summing up the mood in the valleys. "I've never run away from anything. I take full responsibility and I want people to realise we're not hiding away from the pressures we're under."

The word is that a few of the players would dearly have loved to run away from Gatland and his assistant, Shaun Edwards, in the brutal training sessions of Monday and Tuesday. "Yeah, the players bitched and moaned a bit but they did respond well," revealed Gatland, before agreeing that today's unsold seats will be a measure of how much the 2008 champions have underperformed in winning just one of their last six Six Nations encounters.

"The players need to show the Welsh public just how important this game and performance is to us," added Gatland. "Those who do come along will see an incredibly committed and motivated team who want to rectify the things that have been very costly to us in this tournament. And if the rain holds off, hopefully they'll see some good rugby."

As Gatland alluded, Italy have asked for the roof to be open. "They prefer to play the game at pace, we prefer not to have the game played at that pace," said the visitors' unashamed coach, Nick Mallett. With wet weather forecast, Italy will fancy their chances of a first win in Wales and grabbing fourth place. That would leave the Dragonhood sweating on Scotland not winning at Croke Park, or else they would finish bottom. In that unlikely but far from impossible scenario, the wolves would be baying with a bloodthirsty lilt.

Gatland anticipates Mallett's men doing the same as the Irish – targeting the woeful Welsh line-out by continually kicking to touch – but, with the return of arguably their two most influential players in the scrum-half Mike Phillips and the prop Gethin Jenkins, the hosts should possess far too much firepower.

They also have romance on their side. At 18 years 27 days, Tom Prydie will break Norman Biggs' 112-year record as Wales' youngest international and, whatever happens, the startlingly quick Ospreys wing should have a far more enjoyable time than his predecessor. Biggs was jeered by the crowd on his debut and 20 years later, then a policeman, he was killed by a poisoned arrow in Nigeria.

Wales v Italy, today at Millennium Stadium (kick-off 2.30pm, BBC 1)

Wales: L Byrne; T Prydie, J Hook (all Ospreys), J Roberts (Blues), S Williams (Ospreys); S Jones (Scarlets), M Phillips (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Blues), M Rees (Scarlets), A Jones (Ospreys), B Davies (Blues), L Charteris (Dragons), J Thomas (Ospreys), S Warburton (Blues), R Jones (Ospreys, capt). Replacements: H Bennett, P James, I Gough (all Ospreys), G Delve (Gloucester), D Peel (Sharks), A Bishop (Ospreys), T Shanklin (Blues).

Italy: L McLean (Treviso); K Robertson (Viadana), G Canale (Clermont Auvergne), G Garcia (Treviso), Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Français); C Gower (Bayonne), P Canavosio (Viadana); S Perugini (Bayonne), L Ghiraldini (Treviso), M Castrogiovanni (Leicester), M Bortolami (Gloucester), Q Geldenhuys (Viadana), J Sole (Viadana), Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français), A Zanni (Treviso). Replacements: F Ongaro (Saracens), M Aguero (Saracens), V Bernabo (Roma), M Vosawai (Parma), T Tebaldi (Gran Parma), R Bocchino (Rovigo), M Pratichetti (Viadana).

Referee: W Barnes (Eng).